The Acquisition of Books

Founded by the very first Ptolemy I Soter, the Great Library was greatly embellished and enhanced by Ptolemy II Philadelphus who endowed it with the ambitious mission of procuring a copy of every book extant. The first Greek libraries were usually collections of manuscripts held by private individuals. Egypt's temples often had shelves containing an assortment of religious and official texts, as did those in the Greek world. It was the Ptolemies desire to possess all known literature housed in these idiosyncratic and diffuse collections, the web sites of the ancient world, into one Great Library, the world's first Internet. John Tzetzes records several centuries later that Kallimachos catalogued 400,000 "mixed" scrolls (probably those that contained more than one chapter, work, or even author) and 90,000 "unmixed", plus an additional 42,000 in the Serapeum. The Ptolemies became obsessive in collecting books. Ptolemy III Euregetes wrote a letter "to all the world's sovereigns" asking to borrow their books. When the Athenians lent him the texts to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, he had them copied, returned the copies, and kept the originals, gladly forteiting the extravagant collatoral which had been demanded for their safe-keeping. All ships that stopped in the port of Alexandria were searched for books and were given the same treatment, thus arose the term "ship libraries" for confiscated collections housed in the Great Library. This vigourously aggressive pursuit of manuscripts did at least inspire the first systematic work in emendation and collation of classical texts without which none of the ancient authors would have survived.
 
  Although Hellenistic Alexandria surely represents one of the high points of human civilization, it is well to reflect on the troubling nature of politics in the city, swinging wildly as it did from rash conspiracy to spontaneous insurrection. The Ptolemys were at best enlightened despots. They could be and often were monstrous. Their rather literal interpretation of Egyptian royal marriage customs resulted in incestuous and violent palace intrigue, with poison figuring prominently. Ptolemy VIII Eurergetes, nicknamed Physcon, or 'Pot-belly', had a son by his sister who he had sliced up and boiled in a soup for her to eat. The Alexandrian mob could be equally alarming in its behaviour and became a byword for impulssive, uncontrollable mass rage. In 80 B.C.E. Ptolemy X Aexander II was induced to marry his cousin Berenice III, the granddaughter of Ptolemy IX Soter II, whom Soter himself had married (a clear demonstration the extreme degree of inbredness in the royal house). This marriage to a wife many years older than himself did not please the groom, who murdered her only nineteen days aftrer the wedding. Enraged at this treatment of the queen they had loved, a huge unruly crowd dragged the perpetrator out of the palace to the gymanasium and hacked the new king to pieces.
 
The First Librarians

The first recorded librarian was Demetrius of Phaleron, who supervised the founding of the Great Library and directed the initial organization of its mission in the years 290 to 282 B.C.E. . Zenodotus of Ephesus held the post of head librarian from the end of Ptolemy I Soler's reign until 260 B.C.E. His successor Kallimachos of Kyrene , was undoubtably Alexandria's most famous librarian, creating for the first time a subject catalogue for 120,000 scrolls of the Library's holdings, called the Pinakes or Tables. All knowledge was divided into eight major subject categories: Oratory, History, Laws, Philosophy, Medicine, Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, and Miscellany. The Pinakes was a massive undertaking, described as having been made up of one hundred and twenty srolls and the extant framents show that citations give something of each author's life, his works, and the number of lines in each work. Even at that, it was by no means comprehensive, but it was the first sort of grand index to knowledge ever and a precursor to all subsequent catalogues of books.

Apollonius of Rhodes, his younger rival and the writer of the notoriously meticulous epic, Argonautica, was the next librarian. Eratosthenes of Kyrene, Stoic and mathematician, succeeded him in 230 B.C.E., and compiled his Tetagmenos epi teis Megaleis Bibliothekeis, the "Scheme of the Great Bookshelves". In 195 Aristophanes of Byzantium , a Homeric scholar of no relation to the comic playwright, took up the position, and updated Kallimachos' Pinakes. Appollonius the Eidograph worked in the years 180 - 160 B.C.E. The last recorded librarian of the golden age of the Great Library was Aristarchus of Samothrace , the astronomer, who became head librarian in 180 B.C.E. but was eventually driven out during dynastic struggles between two Ptolemies. After a period of disruption we hear finally of Onesander of Cyprus, the last of the librarians of the Ptolemaic period specifically mentioned by name.

After the Roman takeover it becomes difficult to sort out an exact chronology of developments in the institution and while the Library and Mouseion persisted for many centuries, from that time onward only a few librarians are known to us with any certainty. Chaeremon of Alexandria is worked in the years from about 50 to 70 C.E. and then we must wait until Dionysius, son of Glaucus (active 100 -120 C.E.), and Caius Julius Vasinus (active 120 -130 C.E.) to find new noteworthy achievemnts in Alexandrian bibliography. Diophantus, who worked in the closing years of the third centry, and Theon, active in the fourth, are associated with renewed attempts to reestablish the old Ptolemaic standards at the Great Library. This momentum was apparently not sustained, however, and throughout that time it is difficult to establish any biographical detail about the men who directed its work.
 
 
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